In the semirural area near Tokyo where I and some others spend weekends, we have just suffered our first break-ins. Nothing serious. Someone, probably delinquent kids, going through unlocked parked cars looking for loose items. Far more interesting is why we have been able to leave our houses and cars vulnerable and unlocked for so long.
To date, no one has seriously tried to explain the extraordinary honesty of the Japanese — why lost wallets are returned intact, change given meticulously, shoplifting abjured. Clearly, religion cannot be a serious factor; Japan does not have one. Nor do the standard theories about a superior Oriental culture make much sense; you won’t find the same kind of honesty in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea or China.
But as with so many other aspects of Japan — the work ethic, tribalistic groupism, manufacturing craftsmanship, etc. — you once could find equivalents in Western societies derived from northern European culture. Australia’s Gold Coast today may look like an armed fortress, with double locks on most doors and metal-barred windows. But in my youth we used to leave the milk money on the pavement. Doors were left unlocked. You did not have to check your change. England used to be much the same.
Why the trusting honesty? A better question is: why not? We begin life with an instinctive sense of trust in and honesty toward others. We take it for granted that we should not steal from family, friends or neighbors. All things being equal, this should evolve into a natural ethic that says the same attitudes should apply to the rest of the society.
If there is a religion to back this up, all the better. But it is not essential.
Crucial to all this is the long period of quiet village and then advanced feudal gestation needed to let the ethic develop. And when we look at the world we find that the two areas where these conditions existed — Japan and northern Europe — are the two areas where we have, or had, that ethic of trust and honesty.
It is, or was, taken for granted that people would behave properly. Why? Because that was “the done thing,” or in Japanese “soo yuu fuu ni natte iru.” No explanation was needed.
One of the first to realize this trust similarity between Japan and northern Europe, and its importance for economic progress, was the U.S. aid expert Lawrence Harrison. But convinced that firm ideologies were the cause — Protestantism in Europe and Confucianism in Asia — he mistakenly tried to include all of Sinitic East Asia with Japan as areas where his concept of a wide “radius of trust” could be found.
The U.S. philosopher Francis Fukuyama took the idea further. He correctly realized that Japan was different from the rest of Asia. But he went on to mistakenly assume that the trust factor and its close relatives, the social contract and participatory democracy, represented some kind of ultimate in human progress: what he called the End of History.
In fact, and as they are discovering today in lout-ridden Britain, burglar-infested Gold Coast and win-at-all-costs Florida, the natural trust that allows the social contract, unlocked doors and genuine democracy is a very transitory stage in human progress. Inevitably, people begin to realize it is foolish be honest and fair when you can easily acquire goods, make money and win elections by breaking the rules, especially if the rest of society is still foolish enough to believe that the rules still apply.
Far from having been at the end of history, we were in the middle of history, and with very little chance of returning. The older societies of the Eurasian continent — China, India and the Middle East — long ago passed through this stage and today have little choice but to use rigid ideologies, semidictatorships and systems of Draconian punishment to hold themselves together.
In this sense, they are ahead of us, not behind. It is they, not us, who represent the end of history. But I doubt whether Fukuyama and his admirers even begin to realize this.
Japan is interesting in that it still retains much of this mid-history innocence, even as we peoples of northern European culture are moving away from it. It shows us how we were, and why. But as with us, Japan’s magic moment of innocence will not last long. Whether in business or bureaucracy, people increasingly put their own interests ahead of the society. Youth crime is on the rise. Stores are beginning to have to defend themselves against shoplifting.
And now there is a further danger, namely the Western moralists determined to educate and reform Japan in our Western image. It is no secret that we foreigners can, if we wish, easily exploit the trusting innocence of Japanese society and its reliance on implicit rules to hold itself together. From impatient “gaijin” who realize they can get their way simply by making a fuss and drunken Russian sailors who want to enjoy the luxury of a Japanese bathhouse while disobeying the rules to the foreign shoplifters causing such trouble in Hamamatsu and Hokkaido and sophisticated Chinese gangs making their fortunes here through violent robbery and the breaking of Japan’s hitherto fragile locks — all seek to take advantage of this country’s trusting vulnerability.
Often the only defense is for the Japanese to try to exclude those foreigners, or at least be on their guard against them. But the moment they do that, the Western moralists leap in accusing Japan of racism and threatening that ugly weapon of societies where natural trust and compromise have broken down — the intimidating lawsuit.
The moralists see themselves as heroes in the fight for internationalism. They are right, if internationalism means dragging Japan down into the same nontrusting gutter as we are in ourselves.
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